"Dancing With Demons" by Penny Valentine and Vicki Wickham

She drank, took drugs and walloped her (female) lover with a skillet, but Dusty Springfield was the pure, true voice of British R&B.

Published October 3, 2001 10:58PM (EDT)

There's always been plenty of fuss made over British rock bands, from the Animals to the Rolling Stones, who tilled the soil of American blues and R&B and grew their own often-spectacular versions of it. But the English girl who did exactly the same thing, Dusty Springfield, is rarely mentioned in the same breath as those rufty-tufty English boys.

Dusty (as it's only right to call her), one of the great pop singers of the '60s and '70s, had a vast knowledge of American R&B: You could hear it in her supremely confident (if restrained) phrasing and in the buttery purr of her voice. But Dusty cultivated the look of a hip, glamorous chanteuse, all peroxide beehive and Cleopatra eyes. She was a seemingly paradoxical blend of supper-club sophistication and roadhouse earthiness. She may not have been one of the boys, but there's no question she dug in as deeply as they did, albeit in her own way. She was a glamour queen who wasn't afraid to get dirt under her fingernails.

"Dancing With Demons," a new authorized biography by Penny Valentine and Vicki Wickham, longtime friends of Dusty's, isn't the most artfully written book: Its language often feels forced and awkward, and the narrative meanders a bit confusingly at times. But it's a valuable book precisely for its subjectivity. Valentine and Wickham don't shy away from the more unpleasant angles of Dusty's story: She abused booze and drugs through much of her career and was frequently hospitalized because of distressing emotional imbalance. (Partly as a result of her debilitating insecurities, Dusty would occasionally cut slashes in her arms; possessed of a wicked sense of humor even during the bleakest times, she once took home a straitjacket as a souvenir of one of her mental-hospital stays.)

Friends don't always write the best biographies -- in fact, they're more likely to write lousy ones. But Valentine (who wrote for Britain's Melody Maker in the '60s) and Wickham (Dusty's longtime friend and manager and a producer of Britain's legendary "Ready Steady Go!" TV show) feel like precisely the biographers Dusty should have: Their book is heartfelt and compassionate, without unduly whitewashing Dusty's occasionally indefensible behavior. They're forthright about Dusty's homosexuality without aggressively politicizing it (something Dusty herself had no interest in doing). And most of all, they make sure that the most fabulous and funny -- as well as the most heartbreaking -- stories get told.

Dusty was born in London in 1939; her real name was Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O'Brien. She and her brother, Tom (the two would later perform, along with Mike Hurst, as the Springfields), and their parents had a boisterous but not particularly happy home life: It was a tradition in the O'Brien household to throw food at mealtimes, and for the rest of her life, Dusty found great delight (as well as raw emotional relief) in throwing things: Pies, crockery, sardines -- you name it. She even whacked one of her lovers in the head with a skillet -- but only after the woman, clearly as unstable as Dusty or perhaps even more so, had first smacked Dusty in the face with a saucepan, smashing her mouth and knocking her teeth out. (Dusty later expressed remorse over the skillet incident, claiming she had been a coward because her girlfriend's back had been turned to her at the time.)

It wasn't easy being Dusty Springfield. But at times, Valentine and Wickham reassure us, it must have been great fun. Dusty had a reputation for being difficult; legendary producer Jerry Wexler (who worked with Dusty on the incomparable "Dusty in Memphis" LP) has said she was one of the most insecure singers he ever worked with.

But the authors point out, credibly, that Dusty often came off as difficult simply because she spoke up for what she wanted. Bandleader Buddy Rich, a notorious bully, once insulted her from the stage when his band shared a bill with her at New York's Basin Street East in 1966: After talking about a number of black singers as being "second rate," he introduced Springfield by saying "and here's a third-rate one."

After several nights of putting up with Rich's insults and show-biz sabotage (he refused to allow her the time she needed to rehearse with the band), Dusty stormed into his dressing room and, after trying to reason with him, slapped him across the face in frustration. The last night of the gig, a member of Rich's band presented her with a pair of red boxing gloves -- a tribute to her gutsiness in standing up to their wearisomely abusive boss.

Part of what made Dusty so "difficult" was her perfectionism in the studio: She'd wear musicians out doing take after take, but with her fabulously well-trained ear, she simply knew what kind of sound she was after and would settle for nothing less. Her career suffered a deep slump in the 1980s, only to be resuscitated with the help of Pet Shop Boys, longtime fans who fought to get her to sing with them on the single "What Have I Done to Deserve This" in 1987. The song became a hit, pumping new life into Dusty's career.

Dusty died of cancer in 1999, but she hadn't slipped into obscurity, and no matter how rough her life got, she never lost sight of the importance of glamour: Shortly before she died, she begged a friend to come over to her London hospital room and help her dye her hair -- "Deb, I've got to be in my coffin as a blonde, please come as soon as you can."

Valentine and Wickham describe the scene: "That evening, armed with her hairdresser's equipment and a large bottle of bleach, Debbie turned up [at the hospital] to be faced with a client attached to a transfusion drip. Hobbling between the bathroom and the smoking area, wheeling the drip with them, Debbie and Dusty giggled and smoked their way through a packet of cigarettes and an entire lightening process ... By one thirty in the morning Dusty was a pretty soft blonde and was happy."

She was never one of the boys. But she did girls everywhere proud.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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